The Secrets Between Us

The dangers of love during an unfamiliar slice of French WWII history (South of France, February – September 1943; England and France, 1993): Laura Madeleine has found her secret to writing elegant, heartfelt novels set in France. The Secrets Between Us her third. (Her prior novel reviewed here.) It’ll be interesting to see what she comes up with in Spain, the setting of her soon-to-be-released fourth novel, An Echo of Scandal.

A few of the author’s secrets seem knowable; the rest, the magic of writing. As a former baker who still creates her own recipes, one ingredient she employs is her passion for baking. A French village bakery centers the WWII storyline, producing “life-giving dough” amidst the despair. Fifty years later, a second plotline intersects with it.

Two female protagonists narrate: 1943 eighteen-year-old Ceci, baker-assistant to her father, and 1993 twenty-something Annie, an archivist living in England. It doesn’t take long for their connection to become evident.

The war story is set in a fictional mountain village, Saint-Antoine about forty miles north of the French Riviera. It’s inspired by the historically significant one, Saint-Martin-Vésubie.

In January 1943, a month before the novel opens, the anti-Semitic French Vichy government established its Gestalpo equivalent military force – the milice – to go after members of the French Resistance risking their lives to save Jews. In February, the novel begins, timed to when Jewish refugees were rounded up and sent to the village occupied by the Italians not the Germans until September 1943, the month the war story ends, when the Germans took over. An example of fine research blended into exceptional fiction.

The real town’s non-Jewish residents were honored by the World Holocaust Center Yad Vashem, with the designation Righteous Among Nations for what they did to protect the Jewish people. These courageous acts are inspiring and bring a slice of lightness to the inhumane Holocaust darkness. Made more compelling when we learn about the Italians’ role in WWII – historical fiction not often seen.

Map via Wikimedia Commons
By Eric Gaba for original blank, mapRama for zones [CC BY-SA 4.0]

Many secrets run through the novel, not just the dangerous ones in the title.

Generations of family, particularly grandmothers, are key to the two narratives. Another ingredient the author mixes in, surely adding emotion to the writing as the author’s grandmother’s WWII stories in France inspired the novel. (See her post, which includes photos of the historic village.) The author’s family lives in France; today she lives in England. Much like Annie, who travels from England to France, in search of her long-lost grandmother at the urging of her famous anthropologist mother.

Annie grew up without knowing who her father was. Her grandmother Celeste helped raise her when her single mother was off traveling. Still, she’s reluctant to pick up and leave her new history-documenting job outside of London, having just returned to her workplace after an unexplained absence. Miserable in her new position, a “demotion” in her eyes. Computer cataloging historical documents isn’t intimate like thumbing through personal, handwritten artifacts. Annie’s kept it a secret why she had to take leave, a sign she’s an extremely private person, much like Ceci. Two different women decades apart, but they share loneliness and compassion for others, resulting in both choosing uncharacteristic paths.

Annie abides by her mother’s wishes partly because she’s worried her cancer surgery means she’s running out of time to make amends with her mother Celeste, whom she hasn’t heard from in years. Annie doesn’t know what happened between them, nor, ironically, the details of her own family’s history – the other reason she can’t turn away.

With access to historical information, Annie’s personal research takes off quickly. As Ceci’s and Celeste’s stories converge, chapters increasingly flow seamlessly into one another, letting the years conflate, letting the past merge into the present. Rightfully so: burying far-reaching secrets persists and torments.

Generations also drive the labor-of-love performed at the bakery, owned by four generations of Ceci’s family her father inherited. Five years ago, times were better, but during the war even basic ingredients were hard and dicey to acquire. The bread barely edible, nothing like the savory and decadent taste it once was. (Think chocolate stuffed into quintessential French dough.)

Ceci and her father rose at 4 am, baked until 11, then began selling, now to a long-line of starving Jews who’d lost everything when they were forced into the stone mountain village. Ceci’s childhood best friend, Paul, who grows more fond of her by the day, assists too when he’s not off playing his hidden role in the war.

Ceci, and the other villagers, are poor. A hotel, with its friendly managers, is the bakery’s major source of income. Then it becomes vital to the refugees, and shows up in the wow ending. The villagers rent out rooms; Ceci’s bedroom over the bakery rented to a Jewish couple. She shared it with her brother, now an imprisoned soldier gone missing. Ceci moved in with her grandmother, but the bakery is where you’ll usually find her.

The Jewish boarders in her house escaped from Belgium, Myriam and Daniel Reiss. Ceci realizes they’re well-off, so why didn’t they pay someone to falsify their identity papers so they weren’t stamped J, to avoid the round-up? What have they done? Seen? Heard? And why is Daniel gone most of the day, leaving Myriam alone?

He says she’s a writer and fragile, but that doesn’t quite mesh with her inconsistent behavior. For days on end, Myriam holes herself up in Ceci’s bedroom where if she’s writing she’s also crying. But then Ceci spots her laughing, drinking, smoking at the town’s café. Ceci is watchful, then confused by a subtle look on Myriam’s face, which turns into a fixation on what’s up with beautiful Myriam.

Ceci is the character who palpably feels the anguish of the refugees. The Italians protected the Jews as best as they could. Who knew this aspect of the war?

When the milice arrive, we brace for what will happen. The author doesn’t want to hit us with graphic violence. One scene she touches on it, others allude to it, but her technique is to grab us emotionally with lyrical, merciful prose.

From beginning to the end, the novel captures us, starting with the opening quote: “There is bread and salt between us.” Defined as “an Arabic saying expressing an alliance, a bond, an oath not to be broken.” In this novel, a hopeless bond.

A Prologue refers to the Bible, to Lot’s wife “who was turned into a pillar of salt for looking back.” Precisely what the novel does. Salt also refers to the ancient salt trading roads; the old path winds its way into the steep mountains surrounding the village. And, of course, a pinch of salt is essential to bread.

Ceci notices other refugees, like three boys who lead us to imagine the unimaginable as fewer Jewish children survived the Holocaust than adults. These children don’t even know what happened to their parents. Compared to their trauma and plight, Ceci doesn’t feel sorry for herself. It’s impossible not to want to hug Ceci.

Ceci never spoke about the war, like everyone from that greatest generation. Maybe that’s why there’s such an appetite for WWII fiction. For the sacrifices made for country, survival, freedom, human rights, and for the desperation of tender wartime love never forgotten. Baker-turned novelist Laura Madeleine knows how to feed that appetite.


Leave a Comment

Blue Hours

Chance encounters that change lives forever (Manhattan, 1991; Afghanistan, 2012): Blue Hours is a stirring, admirable tale about the sacrifices we make for love of country and someone beloved.

Daphne Kalotay is a gifted writer in control of how much she wants to let us know, or not. Mysteries drive an entangled plot involving several characters we meet in Manhattan 1991 – Mim, Kyra, and Roy – and twenty-one years later, when they find themselves, willingly or not, dangerously mixed up in Afghanistan after 9/11.

Told by Mim, the protagonist, first as reflections of an experimental, coming-of-age time when she came to Manhattan fresh out of college. Then followed by an intense, modern-day war story in places “it is simply too dangerous” to be, “even for the FBI.”

“The heart is a mysterious thing,” Mim says, to explain how confused hers was, how torn it still is. Haunting NYC memories come flooding back when she receives an out-of-the-blue call from Roy decades later saying Kyra has gone missing, somewhere in eastern Afghanistan.

Mim and Roy have been estranged from Kyra all these years, but they both cared deeply about her. So much so they jump into something they’re unprepared for. Mim particularly as she painted herself as an anxious, fearful, struggling-to-belong young woman. As we learn bits and pieces about her new, contented, fairly isolated world, we see she still harbors fears. For someone who also “hates traveling,” it’s a monumental feat of courage and loyalty to accompany Roy to Afghanistan to search for missing Kyra.

Despite years and anxieties that can distort reality, Mim comes across as a reliable narrator. She always wanted to be a writer, so she speaks to us in prose that’s well-crafted to deliver intrigue, suspense, and non-preachy, important messages.

Besides the central mystery of what happened to Kyra, we must first figure out what happened between Mim and Kyra in NYC to cut their ties?

Some background about the two women: They met on an Amtrak train going from New England to Manhattan “when you could move to the city without a job or a plan, just some unreasonable dream, and survive.” Kalotay is skilled at evoking the city in the early nineties when it was gritty, not like it is today. “That city,” Mim says, “doesn’t exist anymore. Just as the girl I was no longer exists.”

Mim arrived yearning to erase “parts of my life.” Though a lonely soul, she came with a college friend, Adrienne, she rooms with. Compared to Mim’s writerly ambitions in the center of the publishing world, Adrienne was already on her way to seeing her movie-star dreams come true, armed with playacting offers in the Entertainment Capital of the World. They quickly learned even in a rent-controlled “walk-up” in Lower Manhattan, near the Bowery, Chinatown, and Little Italy, the rents were still too high if they wanted to eat.

Needing more roommates to share expenses, Kyra became the third – Kyra who had money to feed the homeless on their doorstep and the city streets, hinting at her dramatic turnaround later. Eventually, they took in two more roommates, one whose presence is acutely felt, whose background is another mystery for a while: Carl from Ohio with his buzz-cut, a “big duffel bag slumped in the corner,” and a noticeable “tremor in his fingers.” These too are revealing details, though we don’t know it until Mim becomes privy to his nightmares.

Roy was not a roommate, rather Kyra’s best friend growing up in Rhode Island. Both came from well-to-do families, and are strikingly attractive. Kyra is the one everyone loves, whereas Mim never felt loved. She envied them for how easy their lives were, how easy it was for Kyra to decline admission to Oxford University to be a dancer.

Kyra is the center of attention, while Mim received none. A victim of her mother’s premature death, her womanizing father who didn’t care about her, nor have money to pretend he cared.

Roy’s youthful feelings for Kyra have grown; Mim’s newfound friendship seems odd as Kyra is everything she’s not, though she’s also dazzled by her. The three often hung out together, and then abruptly stopped. Why?

The fifth roommate, an unnamed medical student, is essentially invisible. Adrienne mostly too as it didn’t take her long to land a role in a daytime soap opera. When she shows up in the powerful ending we didn’t expect, we cheer for her performance, how Kalotay brings her back in.

Jack, like Carl, is a Manhattan character absent in the later years, because he fulfilled his purpose: to add some physical pleasure into Mim’s loveless, out-of-place life among peers she felt were on the “brink of something magnificent,” except her. (Her degree amounted to a boring sales job in a clothing store.) In the years of her evolution, she realizes plenty of people hide their inner demons.

Kalotay unwinds her complicated characters’ stories and emotional pain at a time when America is suffering. Pointedly, she uses her characters to tell a highly polarized, disillusioned nation to pay attention to our nation’s foreign policies. To think about what we want our country to be, which means thinking about the damages inflicted on our citizens and others caught up in endless wars. Messaging that’s easier to swallow fictionally.

Jack, also rich, is the “son of diplomats” and refugees. Refugees and the impoverished are at the heart of Kyra’s disappearance, having left her cushioned life to work with NGO’s in troubled spots around the globe – African countries, Central American, The Philippines, Afghanistan, where Mim and Roy dare go.

Roy’s wealth enables the hiring of drivers who know the remote, treacherous Afghan lands, checkpoints, languages, culture, and village clans. Drivers willing to risk their lives for money and love – Asim, Ismail, Rafiq. Graceful messengers for peace, they touch us. On drives and hikes through the “crumpled mountains,” “parched earth,” and surprising “rushing brooks,” they protect the do-good foreigners, while trying to convince them their country is “not hopeless.”

Doesn’t feel that way to Mim, who awakens to the “realization that my country has done this.” A treacherous hunt made messier by humanitarian entities with good intentions too, but “not a lot of coordination.”

Kalotay also puts us authentically into this setting, describing the threadbare clothing of the Afghan women and men, and landscapes. But it’s the assault weapons of war they carry that hit us in the gut, these being the same guns terrorizing America. Again, a very timely plea.

If this all sounds too dark to be enchanted, the prose is. It makes us see what we don’t want to, or have ignored seeing. Kalotay also has a unique way of expressing things, like depicting an Afghan man as having “the face of antiquity.” Or saying “an old woman’s face is beautiful in the way the old become beautiful.” In how she boils down fifty years of the Islamic Republic’s history in one sweeping paragraph. Prose aimed at making thoughtful, penetrating points through her characters’ eyes and development.

The author did her homework, acknowledging Desert Storm and other experts who provided “first hand insights into Afghanistan, the eastern border regions, and humanitarian aid work.” No matter what they told her, she alone created the seat-of-your pants scenes in what feels like the scariest place on earth.

Mim’s journey is candid and raw. She shows us what it’s like to step so far out of your comfort zone, to get a better sense of “things so far beyond us.”


Leave a Comment

If You Want to Make God Laugh

Motherly love overcomes racial injustice (South African villages and capital city, also Goma, Zaire now the Democratic Republic of the Congo; 1993, 1994-1997 post-Apartheid): Almost six years ago, President Barack Obama delivered a rousing speech to a stadium-filled crowd in Johannesburg, one of the South African settings in this marvelous novel, to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela, whose rise to power ended fifty-years of the racist Apartheid era. This is the same historical period Bianca Marais has chosen for If You Want to Make God Laugh, her second novel. (Her debut, Hum if You Don’t Know the Words, took place during Apartheid.) 

While the video doesn’t include the former President’s full speech, his uplifting words and the images are echoed in this memorable work. He spoke about the “moral necessity of racial justice,” knowing that “racial reconciliation,” “equality and justice,” “freedom and human rights” were not guaranteed. But, he wisely pointed out that the spirit of “Mandela’s greatest gift” was achieved and should never be forgotten, though in today’s highly divisive America it seems it has. That gift is:

“Recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.

Imagine a novelist inspired by the glorious ambitions and grace of two eloquent Presidents, turning them into a heartbreaking and heart-uplifting tale showing how formidable it is to achieve racial understanding and compassion, to thoughtfully drive home Nelson Mandela’s message. Couple that with the fears and agony of the emerging AIDS epidemic in South Africa for mothers and their babies, as seen through the hearts of three female characters – and you’ll have the gist of the powerful themes tackled.

Two of the women are white and in their fifties, Delilah and Ruth. The third is seventeen and of Zulu ethnicity, Zodwa. Each keeps their sorrows, regrets, burdens from their pasts secret, to hide their shame and pain. To varying degrees, they accept their fates as a form of punishment: Delilah wrongly believes she deserves a “lifetime of heartbreak”; Ruth punishes herself in destructive ways; and from Zodwa’s perspective “it’s a quirk of fate or a spin of the wheel that decides who must suffer and who will be spared.”

Who is spared is key to the unwinding plot, and to what’s needed to make God laugh.

Delilah and Rose have not seen seen or spoken to each other in forty years. Early in the 435 fast-turning pages you’ll learn their oil-and-water relationship. Zodwa is a stranger to them, until a series of events brings the three together. Chapters alternate between them.

  • Delilah is living in Goma, Zaire before it became the Democratic Republic of the Congo bordering Rwanda, where a genocide ignited in 1994 (see In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills). She’s the complete opposite of flamboyant, outspoken, rich, alcoholic Ruth, comparing the two to “shooting stars [Ruth] and mason jars.”
  • Ruth is living in Cape Town, then leaves for her family’s neglected farmhouse and defunct avocado farm in a south coastal South African village, a last ditch effort to save a third divorce. Not as well-to-do as she once was, but the only one with money.
  • Zodwa’s mother knew the two white women decades ago when she was called Precious. Zodwa has the least, yet she’s the strongest, having sacrificed even more than the others, the one you’re likely to never forget. She’s been living in extreme poverty in a “squatters camp” in Magaliesburg, a province northwest of Johannesburg, to care for her severely ill mother.

A map of locations is included in the book.

While the three have experienced vastly different lives, they have something profoundly in common: motherhood, be it real or “a cotton-candy fluff of yearning.” Of course, they don’t know that when they first end up together in that farmhouse. It’s symbolic of the peace that could be had, but there’s no getting away from racial animosity, crime, and violence just because Mandela became President. “In the new South Africa, white people want to have black friends just to prove they’re not racist, but the only black people they know are their maids and gardeners.”

We meet a lot of “broken people” mourning the death and disappearance of their children; others abandoned by parents who’ve died from the conflicts, AIDS, and are so impoverished they’re unable to care for their babies. More suffering by these three women comes from ostracized loves, due to racial, religious, and cultural beliefs.

Ruth is a believer in signs, not so different than Zodwa’s Zulu culture’s belief in spiritual healers. “Some signs have saved my life,” Ruth says, “while others reminded me that I had a life worth saving.”

If You Want to Make God Laugh wants to remind us that all lives are worth saving. If only people would do the right thing.

You may wonder, like I do, whether an author who wasn’t born and spent much of her life in South Africa (Canada is now Marais’ home) – about the same age as Zodwa when Mandela came to power, and worked with women and children who were HIV-positive – could write such an historically and emotionally poignant novel? Perhaps, but the authenticity stirs, builds, bubbles over.

Delilah and Rose are Afrikaners who speak English and Afrikaans, a language defined in a welcomed four-page Glossary of Terms, found at the back of the book as: “derived from a form of Dutch brought to the Cape by white settlers from Holland in the seventeenth century.” Zodwa speaks English and Zulu, a language spoken by about 9 million people centered in the KwaZulu-Natal province where Zodwa lived with her grandmother, her gogo, until she’s summoned to care for her mother. The lush scenery of this region is world’s away from the filth and dangers of her mother’s shack. The helpful dictionary, then, includes both Afrikaans and Zulu words.

Mountains in Drakensberg, KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa
via Max Pixel [CC0]

As for the motherhood connection, a few details. In Goma, Delilah was working at an orphanage, home to over two hundred children, many “countries and missions later,” after she’d left the Catholic church. The children call her Granny, a word used for anyone forty or over; they used to call her Mother when she was younger. Initially, she felt they were “mocking me for my childless state.” Her evolution on motherhood takes her a long time to face up to, while Ruth’s response to mothering is, uncharacteristically, almost instinctual. Zodwa’s is not as immediate, but happens quite soon, and intensifies.

Their stories will become clear, but saying more will spoil the impact, which seems why the author is in no rush to hurry them. She wants us to feel what it takes for her characters to evolve over time, to find common ground. Chapters, though, are short, flow easily into one another, allowing us to absorb the challenges confronting these women.

Racism and its consequences are at the forefront. But a mother’s love is color-blind, as the women discover the bonds of motherhood, mothering, are the most powerful of all.


Leave a Comment

Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race

Why did she do it? How did she do it? Winning the Mongol Derby (Mongolia, 2013): Rough Magic is a stunning memoir that leaves you with more questions than you started with. Those are: Why did Lara Prior-Palmer, at nineteen, enter “on a whim” the “longest and toughest horse race in the world,” in Mongolia? How did she win it, when half of the thirty competitors from around the globe never even finished the ten-day race that Prior-Palmer completed and won in only seven days?

Mongolia is considered the most sparsely populated country in the world. Of its over three million people, 25% to 40% are nomads and herders living in gers (like a “Russian yurt”) on grasslands, the steppes. A way of life that depends on horses; a country with “more love songs about horses than about women.”

Mongolian yurt
P.Lechien [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

For the British author, who splits her time between London and a small English village, Mongolia’s disorientating landscapes with “fourteen different microclimates” weren’t like anything she (or we) had known. The author is more at home in the English countryside than the “concrete nowheres” city. She’s also far more at home on a horse than with people, describing herself as someone with “a failure to emotionally engage.” Yet, she’s really not at home anywhere. “Why tie ourself to a place?” she wonders. Antithetical to so many searching-for-home memoirs.

This memoir is a search for self in spite of/regardless of place.

As for why more questions, two reasons. The writer thinks like a philosopher, constantly questioning herself and us with existential questions like: “Do you find yourself searching for the meaning of life?” She also chooses and spins her prose like a mystical poet, triggering spiritual questions. Quite fitting for an otherworldly country in East Asia that follows Buddhist and Shaman spiritual beliefs.

Both religions esteem nature. So do Mongolians who care so much about the land they wear “soft, curved soles to spare the stalks of the tiniest plants and to avoid hurting the earth.” And so does the author, who observes “we humans seem to have put a lot of energy into separating ourselves from nature.”

The Why question, then, is the easier one to answer.

To understand where the author’s mystical prose stems from consider her exotic academic pursuits. She went to Stanford University in the US, majored in two unusual subjects. One I had to look up: “conceptual history.” It explains her philosophical reflecting as this approach to understanding history and culture applies a philosophical bent. Her second major, Persian studies, includes language and culture, which accounts for references to poets, prophets, and a love for ancient history that’s “pre-concrete, pure horse.”

The author opens her memoir when she’s searching for what to do next in life, after graduating from high school and finding her au pair job in Austria claustrophobic for her restless soul.

Prior-Palmer is not someone who sees herself in flattering ways. “Simply befuddled,” a “scatterbrain,” and “ditzy” are not the characteristics you think of for surviving and accomplishing a grueling long-distance horse race with “no set route,” in vast, wild, diverse landscapes. She carried a race map, but “a map cannot lead a mind across a river.”

Perhaps dreaming does, when your dreams about “freedom and independence.” She lets us know from the outset these aspirations are very much on her mind, quoting the rough magic line from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, which she brings along with her. Freedom is an important theme in Shakespeare’s “final play, a play of dream, spirit, and sea.”

Why, then? She imagined the race would set her free.

While many questions are asked of us, much of the memoir feels like the author is talking to herself, in spare, lyrical, stream-of-consciousness prose.

Prior-Palmer began the race perceiving herself as non-competitive. When she meets one of the riders – twenty-year-old Devan from Texas, her bragging about being on the US Endurance Team irritated her greatly, stirring her. Overconfident Devan serves to motivate her, push her, intensifying as Devan was hours ahead of everyone for most of the race. “What had we all missed by not growing up in Texas?” One of her humorous, sarcastic thoughts. Even when she won, she didn’t boast, believing “overt ambition is disgraceful.”

Why, then? She was out to prove something to herself.

As to How she won, even the author can’t answer that. Woefully unprepared for endurance, cross-country riding, unlike her idol, her Aunt Lucinda. Lucinda Green is an Olympic champion in the British horse racing world. But the longest race in England couldn’t begin to compare to the Mongol Derby, designed to imitate Genghis Khan’s postal system in the 13th century, covering a mind-boggling 1000km or 620 miles!

Prior-Palmer spent only a month (others six months or more) preparing for a race that depended on her own fitness as well as horses – “horses’ hydration levels, gut sounds, lameness protocol, and heart rates.” More daunting, she had to learn to handle “semi-wild ponies” that are “rarely handled and therefore hypersensitive to human motion.” And she had to re-learn that twenty-five times. Twenty-five different horses, changing for a new horse at urtuus,“horse-changing stations.” That’s “twenty-five ponies saying Who are you? and Who are we?”

Another challenge was reaching each station (equipped with gers where the riders slept, although not always finding enough beds) by 8:30pm or you’re penalized. (Also penalized for returning a horse with an elevated heart rate.) This meant learning navigation tools as you don’t dare get lost, nor ride alone.

Enduring all of that, the author asks, as we do: “Why the need to go all that way and do such a thing?”

You don’t have to be a horse enthusiast to be moved by this provocative book. All you need is a desire to be inspired by someone who took a bold step, succeeding at something out-of-this-world. The author’s extraordinary mental fortitude belies her mother calling her a “sensitive mouse” and defies her compromised health, years of stomach aches and unknown pains, which you’ll discover are not in her head. A reason, it seems, she asks: “What gets you out of bed?”

Imagine all the calories burned riding up to fourteen rough hours a day. Then imagine consuming for breakfast just “fermented horse milk, the national drink” (if anything at all, because losing time rushes you.) Lunch not much better: noodle soup with mutton fat. Nourishment comes from the Mongolian people, welcoming and generous, giving what they can.

So many obstacles to overcome, but the author wouldn’t let anyone see her pain or fears. A very tall order given a film crew was making a documentary following the riders around, along with a TV reporter.

Fears are expressed privately in a Winnie-the-Pooh journal, a childish name but there’s wisdom in that bear and his animal friends’ words. Included in the journal are pretend letters written to the author’s mother; also notes about each horse and riding/landscape experience, which, presumably, allowed her to write vividly over the five years it took to craft her memoir.

The author’s race horses ranged from lame to slow to fast, one a “madman.” She takes to naming them. One named for the race photographer Richard Dunwoody, another observer, often snapping pictures of her. Later, she learns he was an Olympic jockey.

“What is it that horses can do for us?” One answer is that “being on a horse pulls you out of yourself and grounds you in the larger land.”

Again, we think we know Why. How remains the magical part of the Shakespearean title.


Leave a Comment

Meet Me in Monaco 2

Two old-fashioned romances grace these pages (Cannes and Grasse, France 1955-1956, also London, NYC; epilogue 1982): Do fairy-tales come true?

Would you love to be transported to the days when an iconic actress of the 20th century came to the French Riviera and met her prince? She a “princess from the moment she was born.”

If stepping back into the life of Grace Kelly – once considered “the most beautiful and famous woman in the world,” the “epitome of femininity” – doesn’t send you running for a copy of Meet Me in Monaco, would an equally charming fictional woman who became friends with the actress, Sophie Duval, tempt you more? She a perfumer with an exquisite nose who’ll bring you to another dreamy setting, the flower fields of Provence, perfume capital of the world.

One more hook: you will not find a single word of profanity, befitting these two graceful women. The harshest prose you’ll find is “hell’s bells” and “oopsy-daisy”!

Grace Kelly stirred legions of fans all over the world, then gave up an illustrious American movie career at twenty-six to be crowned Her Serene Highness Princess Grace of Monaco when she married Prince Ranier III. Imagine going from Philadelphia to Hollywood to become a Monégasque (citizen) reigning over Monaco, a tiny “principality. Like Vatican City.” The “wedding of the century” took place at a sixteenth-century palace overlooking the Côte d’Azur, watched on TV by 30 million and captured by 2,000 journalists and press photographers! Yes,“it seems everyone loves a fairy-tale romance.”

Even if you know how Grace Kelly’s fairy-tale ended, you’ll still be moved by its heartfelt depiction by two talented historical fiction writers, Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb, who’ve collaborated on another historical romance novel set in France, Last Christmas in Paris; and taken with their lively creation: a Grace Kelly “obsessive,” Angeline West. A brash Philadelphia journalist who devotedly reports on the whereabouts and fashions of her idol. Like her 10.47 diamond engagement ring and the most popular wedding dress in the world on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

If you’re nostalgic for the actress’ “timeless elegance” – be it the “Grace Kelly look” or her graciousness – you’ll devour this book.

Knowing Grace Kelly’s story doesn’t tell us how another old-fashioned romance turns out. That one is between her ten-years-older friend Sophie and James Henderson, a “striking” London-based photographer for the British press assigned to get glamorous shots of the world-famous movie star, or he’ll lose his job. Freeing him wouldn’t be so bad at all if it weren’t for his precious ten-year-old daughter, Emily, back home, whom he adores. No doubt, his ex-wife would use a lack of financial support against him, tightening her stranglehold, another excuse preventing him from seeing her. A war buddy keeps him afloat.

Fascinating, the parallels between a legendary star and an unknown fictional one. Both are shy but learned how to be “confident socialite[s]” when they had to. Obviously, Grace Kelly had far more practice perfecting that, but Sophie is “an intriguing woman,” says James, “who enchanted me more than the Hollywood stars.” The two are natural beauties, grateful for their unlikely friendship.

Meet Me in Monaco opens with this simple yet stunning photograph of Grace Kelly:

Grace Kelly
Metro Goldwyn Mayer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Her love story begins when she arrives in Cannes for the 8th annual film festival. Despite the paparazzi chasing her, she maintained her warmth.

The novel is structured two ways. One alternates between French Sophie and British James, punctuated by that winsome American reporter. Ever wonder how two authors collaborate on one novel? I suspect Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb took on one of the characters, whose narrations switch back and forth sharing their challenges and feelings for each other. Up against Grace Kelly’s tantalizing fairy-tale, and a budding, enduring friendship between two women of grace, this is wholesome escapist fiction with life throwing its share of curve balls and sorrows.

Organized in three parts, named in the language of perfume – Head Notes, Heart Notes, Base Notes – for as much as this is Grace Kelly’s story, it’s Sophie the perfumer’s on a more personal, knowable level. Stardom and royalty are by nature a bit elusive.

Head Notes introduce characters and establish impressions as these are the “notes that greet the nose immediately and evaporate quickly.” When the actress meets the prince there must have been an instant attraction as they wrote to each other for only a few months and then got engaged, surprising the world. Love almost at first sight also happens when James ducks into Sophie’s perfume boutique in Cannes thinking he spotted Grace Kelly doing the same to politely avoid a persistent photographer. He’s immediately drawn to Sophie; touches a nerve in her too. Yet, contrary to the perfume terminology, both sets of romantic impressions do not fade. Rather, they deepen.

Fairy-tales are not without their conflicts. For Sophie, it’s an irritating, condescending, sexist, wealthy boyfriend who thinks he owns her. To some extent he does, having bailed out her beloved father’s perfume legacy, which she regrets, but the business she inherited is constantly on the financial brink.

Sophie, not one to give up easily, is inspired by her father’s training in the “science and magic, art and beauty” of creating scents that hold memories, “remind you of something, or someone.” She’s also passionate and incredibly hard-working in her own right, inventing new “luxury fragrances” with sensuous French names and designing elegant bottles, to rescue her perfume house. Her workshop is in Grasse, where the factory and flowers are located, along with her trouble-maker, alcoholic mother living in their quintessential Provence “stone farmhouse.”

James is also passionate about his craft and art, but not hounding movie stars; he prefers photographing natural landscapes, which he discovers like a treasure trove in romantic France. Yet he keeps having to cut his time short to return to London because of emergencies. Leaving Sophie is maddening. So he and Sophie, like the actress and prince, also correspond through letters, though more sporadically over a much longer duration.

Part Two, Heart Notes –“scents that emerge in the middle of the dispersion process” – are where the two couples reveal their hearts. Except, the royal couple cements their love, while Sophie and James’ relationship is thwarted again and again.

The third part, the Base Notes, “the notes that linger the longest,” let you know whether the novel has a fairy-tale ending. Actually, two. Be prepared to cry and smile.

Along the way, you’ll be met by prose scented with roses, lavender, violet, verbena, vanilla, tuberose; a gentleman’s flirtatious lines straight out of old romantic movies; and Angeline’s colorful columns that increase in frequency, which we welcome like a news junkie.

If, like me, you’re sorry when Meet Me in Monaco ends, you can watch Grace Kelly and Cary Grant star in To Catch a Thief, filmed in the same gorgeous locale, same time period.

To Catch a Thief [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The film’s director, Alfred Hitchcock, Hitch to his friends, was apparently dazzled by Grace Kelly too, making two more films featuring her: Rear Window and Dial M for Murder.

Always a princess, what Grace Kelly did out of appreciation for and friendship with Sophie, which feels authentic to her goodness, may make her one of your favorite actresses too.


Leave a Comment